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VAN BUREN, Maine — State and local coronavirus aid is left out of a new pandemic relief package floated by Republicans in the U.S. Senate, but Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said on Friday she is hopeful it will be included in a final measure.
Her comments came as Senate Republicans are divided on a new stimulus bill that could top $1 trillion. It is expected to include another round of $1,200 payments, plus a liability shield for businesses against virus lawsuits, $105 billion in school aid and extended small business loans. Democrats want much more and some conservatives are reluctant to back heavy spending.
Collins, a moderate Republican who is among the most vulnerable incumbents in the 2020 election in a Democratic-leaning state, unveiled a bill in May proposing $500 billion in direct aid to state and local governments. It would give $2 billion more to Maine on top of the $1.25 billion in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus bill passed in March.
While the state has set aside $35 million of that aid for cities and towns, Maine’s municipalities were shut out of a direct aid program in the CARES Act that only applied to cities with 500,000 or more people. Under Collins’ framework, two-thirds of the money would go to the Maine state government with the rest going to counties, cities and towns.
On Friday, Collins said while visiting a food box distribution program in Van Buren that she has discussed the issue with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and the Republican caucus is “really split” on the issue of state and local aid largely because some states have not spent full allotments of earlier money.
She said she understood that argument, but that “doesn’t decrease the need for those who are at the municipal level.” Several Maine cities and towns have laid off workers and Collins said she has been told more will come without aid. The state of Maine has projected a $525 million budget shortfall by mid-2021 due to steep decreases in tax revenue.
“I think a component of local aid is very important,” Collins said. “I’m hopeful that that will be included in the package.”
Schools could be major beneficiaries of local aid, the Maine senator said, citing policies crucial to reopening — including additional bus routes, increased sanitization and layout changes — that would lead to more costs. She said getting kids back to school this year is “important not only for their academic advancement, but for their social and emotional development.”
Negotiations on the Republican proposal are still happening. President Donald Trump pushed for a payroll tax cut that was rejected by most others in his party including Collins, who said it was too expensive and would displace other spending.
House Democrats, meanwhile, passed a $3 trillion package in May that will represent their party’s starting point in negotiations. That bill includes another $500 billion for states, $375 billion for local governments and $20 billion each for tribes and territories. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, joined nearly three dozen Democratic colleagues in a letter to McConnell this week urging that level of funding.
Congress effectively faces a July 31 deadline to act on a new proposal, since that is when a federally funded $600 weekly enhancement of unemployment benefits is scheduled to sunset. Republicans who have begun to see that as a disincentive to work want to reduce it to $200, though Democrats generally want to maintain it.
Collins faces a nationally targeted race for a fifth term in 2020, with House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, maintaining a slim lead in polls released this year with Lisa Savage, a Solon educator and former member of the Green Party, running as an independent.
Gideon released a series of recommendations for federal aid that included state and local aid. She supported extending unemployment benefits in a way that businesses “do not face another hurdle in bringing their employees back” in a statement this month. That position is similar to that of Collins, who does not support continuing the $600 but supports some extension.